10 Most Popular Backpacker Books in South East Asia

Those who have been traveling recently may have noticed that there seems to be some kind of backpacker book club on the South East Asian trail. Everywhere you look on buses and trains you will see the same titles appearing again and again (as well as South East Asia Backpacker Magazine of course!)

A quick perusal of the second hand book stores in any of the main backpacker haunts and you will see the same copies, well-thumbed and highly priced denoting their status as big hits amongst the backpacker crowd. Some travel books, some best selling thrillers, here are the top 10 most popular books that are doing the rounds on the South East Asian circuit this year. Get in with the backpacker book conversations by getting a head start on your reading before you arrive…

Mr Nice

Tip on buying books in Southeast Asia: Don’t scrimp on your literature. The book you are buying will be your best friend on many a long bus ride in the weeks to come. The 30 baht Catherine Cookson’s are in the 30 baht bargain bin for a reason!

1. Mr. Nice by Howard Marks

An auto-biography about a Welsh drug dealer dubbed the “English Toff Drugs King of the World” is hardly the kind of literature that you’d expect to be popular amongst backpackers, nevertheless this is perhaps THE most popular book in South East Asia. Maybe its the unconventional lifestyle that appeals? Perhaps it’s the incredible tales of adventure that thrill? On ferries, buses and trains backpackers can be spotted reading the cult book of this most charismatic criminal.

2. Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

A close second to Mr. Nice, the best selling thriller, the ‘Girl with the dragon tattoo’ has been hugely popular this year, obviously not just amongst backpackers. It is the first book in a trilogy that includes ‘The Girl who played with fire’ and ‘The girl who kicked the hornets nest.’ The author, Stieg Larsson was a journalist and magazine editor in Stockholm who died unexpectedly in November 2004, leaving three unpublished novels. This first book is an epic tale of murder and corporate trickery that you will not be able to put it down, leaving you baffled as to ‘whodunnit’.

3. The Beach by Alex Garland

Alex Garland’s epic tale of backpacking, beginning on the infamous Khao San Road in Bangkok. It follows the path of a young English traveler, Richard who is given a sketched map revealing the location of a hidden beach in the Gulf of Thailand, undiscovered by tourists. Picking up a French couple on his way and after a long and arduous trip, they reach the island to discover they have been beaten to it. But the trio are accepted into the community for fear of it’s secrecy being damaged. The book easily grips the average backpacker, on their perpetual hunt for paradise, while depicting the trials and tribulations of living on a self-sufficient island, from ‘rice runs’ to shark attacks.

4. Life of Pi by Yann Martel

A thought provoking and inspiring book, The Life of Pi is a true classic of modern literature. The narrator and protagonist, Pi, named after a French swimming pool tells the story of how he survived being stranded on a lifeboat with only animals for company, including a ravenous Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Having won numerous awards, Martel’s book is due to be released as a film in December 2012 starring an inexperienced student from Delhi (playing Pi) and Tobey Maguire, other wise known as Spiderman.

5. Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

An EPIC read, inspired by real experiences of the author who was convicted of bank robbery and addicted to heroin. Having escaped from Pentridge Prison, Shantaram tells of his ten years on the run in India. From working as a Doctor in a Mumbai slum, to playing an extra in Bollywood films,  being recruited by the Mumbai underworld and fighting with the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan, Roberts’ tall stories are admittedly partly fictional, but believeable nonetheless… Why else would his book have been destroyed by prison guards, forcing Roberts to rewrite it three times?! Don’t be put off by this novels sheer size and weight though, wear your towel as a scarf and squeeze this one in, it’s well worth it.

6. First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung

Many travelers like to read books featuring the country in which they are traveling, in an attempt to learn more about the country’s history and population.First they Killed My Father is an absolute must read for any backpackers heading to Cambodia. Written by Loung Ung, a survivor of the brutal Pol Pot regime, it tells the story of her life, living at the time of the Khmer Rouge. This strict Communist party ruled Cambodia for four years, with their motto “To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss.” This attitude resulted in the deaths of over a fifth of the country’s population over their brief period of rule. Loung’s moving tales of separation and hardship are guaranteed to reduce you to tears.

7. Damage Done: Twelve Years of Hell in a Bangkok Prison by Warren Fellows

In 1978, the author of this heartbreaking yet fascinating book was sentenced to life imprisonment having been found guilty of heroin trafficking. This insight into the life of an inmate in a Bangkok jail is undoubtedly both hard to put down and hard to imagine. As you lie back in your hammock, Fellows will transport you into a shocking world of solitary confinement and sewer rats. So if you’re strapped for cash and would even consider getting involved in drugs in Thailand, consider this a terrifying warning… take out a loan instead!

8. The Girl in the Picture by Denise Chong

Inspired by the famous photograph of a young girl running naked from a napalm bomb during the Vietnam War, ‘The Girl in the Picture’ is a biographical tale of life during the war, through the eyes of Phan Thị Kim Phúc (famously photographed) and her Mother. Having been told that it was unlikely that she would survive due to the extent of her napalm burns, Kim Phúc’s life was saved by surgeons. In her own words, her experiences taught her to be “strong in the face of pain” and have since gained her recognition as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador. Through a lens previously overlooked, the biography provides a glimpse into the family’s experience of Vietnamese and American relationships in that troublesome time.

9. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

Elizabeth Gilbert calls her year-long adventure around the world “one woman’s search for everything,” and isn’t EVERYTHING all we ever want as backpackers? Ms. Gilbert begins her year in eating her way through Italy (“Eat”), then moves to India to nourish her spirit by living in an ashram (“Pray”), and ends her trip in Bali, trying to find a balance between the physical and the spiritual experiences of the first two countries (“Love”). Whatever brings you to Bali, the surf culture of Kuta and Uluwatu or the monkey forests of Ubud, the people and the island have captured many a heart. Grab a copy of Eat Pray Love for the beach and begin your own search for everything.

10. The Alchemist by Paolo Ceolho

The motto of this fable states that “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” . However unbelievable this may seem having experienced the quirky ways of life as a traveller, you can’t help but wonder if there is indeed a grand plan for us all? This is the magical story of Santiago, an Andalucian shepherd boy, who sets out to follow a dream which he believes to be prophetic. On his journey, he seeks treasure but encounters love, disaster and learning along the way. Now translated into 67 languages and with a Guinness World Record under it’s belt, this should definitely make it onto your ‘must-read’ list and has been dubbed one of the best travel books of all time…

Which books would make YOUR TOP 10 List of Backpacker Reads?


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19 thoughts on “10 Most Popular Backpacker Books in South East Asia

  1. Vin says:

    Hello there.
    I’m planning to go for an asian tour (Indo-china) next year april 2014. anyone interested to join? who any knows any back packer group? i want to go.

  2. Jack says:

    Some awesome books in the list!
    I love Twenty-something by Paul L’Estrange.
    It’s all a true story about this guy who goes backpacking around Thailand and some other places in the region but also about Australia and New Zealand too.

  3. April says:

    I actually read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo while volunteering on Koh Rong Samloem last year. Got it off a shared book shelf, still smells like the ocean 🙂 I’m also currently reading First They Killed my Father before I head back to SEA this year. So far it is so hard to put down. It is a must read if you are going to Cambodia, really gives you an insight into the country’s past.

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  5. Ian says:

    The Dharma Bums by Kerouac is amazing, just reading it now and prefer it to On the Road – maybe because of the Buddhist leanings… not set in SE Asia but the spirituality is pure from the Orient… ha!

  6. Erika Heales says:

    The Drifters by James Michener…I absolutely love this book, and have read it several times. There are six main characters who are from various countries around the world. They have all faced issues back at home, and have decided to go travelling. These people’s paths cross and they become a close group of friends. They visit Spain, Portugal, Mozambique and Morocco together. This little summary is not doing this book justice… buy it and read it!

  7. Hans says:

    It is not SE Asia but The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu by Tom Vater is a great read of a road trip from London to Kathmandu gone wrong. Murder drugs, lots of drugs and an old Bedford truck….

  8. Zoe Jackson says:

    ‘Backpack’ by Emily Barr … I really vivid and insighful read about packing up and travelling alone, meeting people … and the dangers you can encounter on the road!! An un-put-downable book … just maybe not read it alone on the night bus or in a dodgy hostel in the Mekong Delta… 😉

  9. joan / the backpack chronicles says:

    I read the ‘Life of Pi’ and ‘The Alchemist’ and all I can say is that they are both great reads! Going to give the other books a try as well.

  10. Vincent says:

    Personnally I always carry “On the road”, by Kerouac, and I read it on each travel. I read some of this list, but only at home.

  11. Marnie Alvez says:

    I read ‘Life of Pi’ and ‘First They Killed My Father’ while traveling SEAsia too! Both books are a must-read. Got the chance to borrow ‘Lucky Child’ at the National Library, sequel to Luong Ung’s bestseller while in Singapore =)

    Last book I read was ‘The Happiest Refugee’ by Anh Do. Picked up from Liberta Guesthouse in Lake Toba, North Sumatra last March =) I so love books while traveling! Great list! Must find some of these books when I get on the road in the future =)

  12. vinoth c says:

    on my recent trip to thai,laos,cambodia and vietnam..i read the 2,3,4 and 5 books 🙂 along with killing fields too 🙂

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